Drag racing anime Initial D went back on air with the November 2012 launch of its Fifth Stage, and fans of the series are treated to old school Initial D delivered in new ways. There’s a catch, however: Initial D: Fifth Stage airs only twice a month on a paid subscription channel, so aside from keeping an eye out for it in its station, fans and enthusiasts will have to wait awhile after the episodes air for online streaming options.
So far I’ve watched up to episode 4 to see if Fujiwara Takumi and the rest of the Project D gang still have the X factor that made Initial D a hit for its fans in its first four stages. The first bit if good news is that the animation and artwork of the Fifth Stage are improved. Better CGI animation renders the drag races sleeker and more impressive than ever, and sharper, cleaner artwork makes characters more detailed than in the previous iterations. The opening sequence makes sure you’ll notice the notable improvements in the CGI; unfortunately the opening sequence itself isn’t very appetizing. The sequence mostly shows the lead cars racing, over and over again. You won’t get much in the way of storyline peeks in the sequence, and the opening song – a 90’s techno-rock piece that sounds like screeching tires – seems to have forgotten that it’s already the second decade after the second millennium. Of course, aligning the song era to the story timeline does help, and despite its annoying shrill ranges, techno-funk beats can accompany the car races very well sometimes.
The first couple of episodes of the Fifth Stage won’t be easy to digest for viewers who are not familiar with the first four stages. I remember that I was introduced to this series through watching 10 episodes of the Fourth Stage, and even compared to that, the opening for the Fifth Stage was rather weak. It’s a given that the events covered in the first few episodes were merely transitional scenes because the last battle of the Fourth Stage was quite something. A classic case of jerks pretending to be the lead characters, a new love interest, and a prelude to a major series of events – this is what the first three episodes showed.
The third episode sees Project D start to seriously invade the Kanagawa Prefecture, the “Holy Land of Racing.” Lots of new beginnings and looming fated battles will unfold, and indeed, during the fourth episode Fujiwara meets with his father’s rival’s son once again, who he defeated in a previous hard-won race. Takahashi Ryosuke anticipates a meeting with someone from his past, and he’s preparing as much as he can for it. It’s nice to see more character development in the otherwise boring Fujiwara, who gets over a lost love and kindles a new, budding relationship, and displays a unique and mysterious driving skill which the Takahashi brothers call the Fujiwara Zone.
In retrospect, the subdued main characters of Initial D brings a familiar subtle feel to the current anime scene, where the clumsy romances and the reserved characters serve to balance out the exceedingly ecchi and fan-serviced anime of our time. Don’t expect a lot of laughs from Takumi, Keisuke, or Ryosuke, however; comic relief is left for the side characters, as it always has been since the First Stage.
The first couple of episodes let us have a taste of the high level of competition Project D faces in Kanagawa, but the first team they battled was nothing normal performance from Keisuke and Fujiwara couldn’t beat. The animation is made more fluid in races by CG assistance comparable to great-looking PS2 games, but in other scenes movements are limited, which in turn limits how much the characters can portray. For instance, Takumi seems to have lost his penchant for pouting, and during a date scene neither he nor his partner showed any sign of affection other than a constant blush across their flat cheeks. Even the eyes in the artwork aren’t as sparkly or expressive as many other anime. Whether that detracts or not from the main focus is irrelevant, however – the crux of the series is the drag races, after all, and how Project D intends to continue winning with an outdated Trueno model AE86 and a Mazda RX-7.
The anime is entirely out of its time, as the era portrayed in the series is about a decade late. It still delivers, however, the same way it did in its first four stages. With updated CGI animation, cleaner artwork, and a storyline chockfull of new beginnings and looming epic races between fated contenders, Initial D: Fifth Stage is an old school anime that still has massive appeal for fans both old and new.
[by G Dino]